Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Back to Bryan (Left Conservatism Returns)

A couple of months ago I had an e-mail exchange with Caleb Stegall, he of the late, great New Pantagruel, over William Jennings Bryan, and what his example does or does not teach us about how to preserve or construct a genuinely conservative/agrarian but also a populist/egalitarian social order. He was responding to this paper of mine, and I promised him that I'd blog some more about the issue soon. That paper was given at an Association of Political Theory meeting back in November, along with scholars like Patrick Deneen, and I promised them I'd follow up on my blog regarding some of what my paper said then too. And, even earlier, back when I wrote my post on "left conservatism," I said there was something more to say about the connection between the kind of perspective I was advocating and the American experience with populism and progressivism. So consider this post an attempt to fulfill all three promises.

I am, as readers of this blog know, a pretty big fan of William Jennings Bryan, though my appreciation of him is admittedly selective, admiring some aspects of his politics and his style and greatly disliking others. But the basic problem which Bryan poses to people like Caleb is not, for the most part, at least so far as I can tell, one that has to do with any of the specific positions he took throughout his career. The early Bryan of the 1890s and 1900s was an advocate of producerism, of the working man with a family to support and a small, mostly self-sustaining community to be a part of; bimetallism, his opposition to monopolies and trusts, his desire to regulate the railroads--all of that and more was grounded in his conviction that real autonomy and equality depended upon a socio-economic structure in which the power over loans, prices, wages and currency was to kept in public hands, rather than concentrated in private ones. And the moralistic thread which ran through all his arguments, becoming ever more explicit as times and society and demographics changed in the 1910s and 20s, was itself drawn clearly from a respect for and commitment to the localized Protestant Christian (and white) cultures and audiences that he campaigned successfully amongst and long preached to throughout the American South, Midwest, and Great Plains. No populist could seriously complain about any of that.

No, the problem posed by Bryan is not so much his principles, as what he believed his principles required in terms of political action. His moralistic egalitarianism became, over the years, a central component of the progressive liberalism of early the 20th-century Democrats (and to a lesser extent Republicans too), thus contributing to or at least not proposing any real alternative to the centralizing social and economic policies of Democrats Woodrow Wilson and later Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Caleb put it to me, "I cannot accept [Bryan's] progressive liberalism, and in fact believe that this was Byran and the late-19th C. populists greatest failure/mistake."

Caleb's not alone; plenty of Kansas and Nebraska populists felt the same way. They were convinced that the "fusion" of 1896 with the Democrats was not just the end of their movement, but the first step towards the ultimate betrayal of its ideals. I'm no major fan of "progressive liberalism" myself, at least not in its final form. However, I think it is only fair to recognize the early Progressives and New Dealers as proposing solutions to real problems, and not just stealing rhetoric from the Populist Party for the sake of advancing their own agenda in the face of rapacious capitalism. Bryan was an imperfect vessel for making populism viable in cities, amongst non-Protestants, outside the Great Plains, but the attempt to make populist policies viable in such contexts had to made, regardless. The roots of the Great Plains populists' inability to come up with wholly sustainable and defendable alternative to the emerging corporate/capitalist order go deep into the basic structures of "opportunity" in the American order. This means, to me at least, that an achievable populism will have to be one that is sufficiently nationalized so as to be able to interact with that order.

Consider the absolute centrality of fears about the railroad trusts to the great majority of populist complaints. Why were the railroads, and the way they unfairly scaled freight charges, and pitted city against city throughout the Great Plains, such a motivating factor in the votes and concerns of so many farmers? Obviously, because a great many farmers were already in the process, by the 1890s, of choosing and/or being forced to adapt to a less self-sufficient, more cash-driven economy. They weren't an enemy of railroads; they wanted to make the railroads work for them. The same thing can be said about the huge role which paranoia over the money supply, and the demand for bimetallism, had in the Populist and People's parties: why was free silver such a vote getter? Because lots of farmers, rather than building their own farms and homes over the years from scratch through collective efforts, were themselves immigrants to the Great Plains, lured by opportunity, and consequently mortgaged up to their hilts. The very platforms that the Populist party adopted over the 1890s, and the producerist principles Bryan advocated, revealed the deep tension felt by farmers and other small-town folk who were actively trying to realize their personal economic and social vision in the midst of an already nationalizing environment.

Now, none of this is to say that the "progressive" fusion represented by Bryan was the only or best possible route to that preserving and constructing that vision. But I respect and accept progressive liberalism, and the New Deal which came later, as at least containing within itself the possibility of such a route, and it is Bryan for whom we have to thank for that.

But leaving aside such thanks...why, despite his best efforts, might Bryan nonetheless be a poor guide to any kind of serious thinking regarding populism today? What's the deep flaw that prevented his solutions, and the solutions of the party he shaped, from really doing what farmers hoped it would do? (That it did a lot to keep small farmers and small towns afloat is indisputable; that it also did a lot of damage all its own along the way is something that thoughtful agrarians have been aware of ever since I'll Take My Stand.) The way Caleb sees it, the real problem was--and is--methodological, or perhaps sociological (or both): "Byran’s populism is liberal because it is entirely procedural. This is the liberal flaw." That is, as I read his concerns, Bryan did not really respect the pre-existent world that he drew his ethics and religion from, however much he may have seemed to, because when it came time to fight on behalf of that world, he wanted to align larger, procedural forces on its behalf, as if it were something static just waiting for lift or an opportunity or a bestowal of new federal funding. This is, I think, a good point. Liberalism, at least in its later 2oth-century forms, has a real "best and the brightest" problem, a tendency to look almost anthropologically out upon the masses and try to figure out how to make them equal with those elites who have already survived and thrived within out socio-economic system. In other words, as Jeff Taylor (another fan of Bryan, though I think he places much too much of a libertarian spin on Bryan's policies) has argued, the liberalism of the post-Bryan Democratic party wasn't particularly Jeffersonian. The question is, to what degree did Bryan's moralistic progressive proposals create that result?

That the fusion liberalism of 1896, and the subsequent liberalism of the Progressives and New Dealers, was increasingly elitist and procedural (a fact that intellectuals like Richard Hofstadter gloried in, condemning the populist sentiments amongst early 20th-century reformers as an unfortunate ideological leftover), I understand and agree with. I also agree that, by the time proceduralism came to dominate liberal thinking, liberalism itself was all but unsalvageable, having committed itself wholly to "management" as conceived by already-well-positioned members of the "vital center." Such management is always, invariably, individualistic, conceived solely along lines connecting the specific, studied individual to those managers who take care of opposing economic and social forces of his or her behalf. Nothing populist there, I'll admit. But part of my point in the paper Caleb is commenting on was that Bryan's proceduralism (if you want to call it that) always presumed the existence of a non-individualistic, pre-existent historical/social/economic construct, the cultural substrate which grounds and subsumes all particular actions; this is the communal context which Rousseau--who plays a major role in my analysis of Bryan and Wendell Berry's respective approaches to democracy--refashioned for the modern world. (I say "refashioned" because there were, of course, plenty of thinkers, like Burke or de Maistre for example, who remained committed in different ways to some sort of conservative continuity into modernity, something that Rousseau assumed--rightly, I believe--was impossible.)

Bryan surely had no real philosophical grasp on the necessity of a lived context for resisting the long-term consequences of the secular liberal order. But he did know that everything he valued kind of presumed a world of Protestant farmers. (White ones, it must be said; Bryan's unwillingness to challenge the racism of the Bourbon Democrats, and even worse his apparent embrace of it later in his life, was his true greatest sin and failure.) Now it is true that this localized, dynamic, and not-easily-reducible Christian agrarian world was one that he was never truly part of, and in fact chose never to be fully a part of, being instead fully committed to a party and a religious ideology that admittedly often were agents of reduction. But isn't it plausible that Bryan never stopped campaigning, never abandoned the reductive and proceduralist methodologies of travel and communication and policy-making of the emerging progressive and liberal elite, never permanently grounded himself in the local knowledge of Nebraska or Kansas or elsewhere, because he knew that wasn't a context he internalize, but rather one he could only serve and thus help conserve for others, and for the nation as a whole? If so, then perhaps what we ought to wonder if it isn't the case that Bryanism, while not sufficient for populism on its own, nonetheless has its place--that given the actually existing world of desire and movement and opportunity that gives this nation (and, increasingly, this world) power over the preferably localized and placed individual, we need actors and policies and provisions on the state and national and even international level to secure places wherein individuals can build the communities they desire. To allow for such is, of course, to walk a tightrope: allowing for this conceptual option makes it easy to sometimes sound like a mere liberal "fan" of culture and community, which brings in the same condescending sociological temptation that Christopher Lasch rightly diagnosed in both the work of the Progressives and their later proceduralist critics like Hofstadter. But to not attempt to walk that tightrope, to not allow for the possibility that populist concerns can, sometimes, be expressed in centralized and procedural terms, is ultimately, I think to become contemptuous of one's fellow man, to hate them for shopping at Wal-Mart, or for not wanting to go all the way back to the Anti-Federalists, in essence. And no good post-Lincolnian American democrat--which Bryan plainly was--should do that.

A little bit more about what Rousseau has to contribute to this argument. As my old "left conservatism" post made clear, I think Rousseau's philosophy is what helps us see the tightrope: the delicate and often tragic line which marks out the path that people, for whom the historical socio-economic condition of today has robbed of a natural basis for community and equality, must walk if they are going to find equality as well as embeddedness in the present world. To hold to embeddedness only is to, I fear, engage in fetishism. "Conservatism" must be willing to continually create something new out of the old in the midst of the modern market and state. That something is, I admit, precarious. I suppose one could argue that Rousseau, in (I think) correctly diagnosing the problem (or at least one of them) with modernity, tried too hard to repair it; he conceived of a way of alienating oneself to a community that, while in theory it would produce that kind of equality of recognition that true populist democracy requires, in practice produces something even worse than alienated individuals: a whole community held together solely by the (often dictatorially expressed) will of all. Further, I suppose one could argue that those "willed communities" are themselves often obsessive, static creations, thoroughly ideological and thus without much substance of their own. They thus become easy marks for monied classes that want to sell them connections and concessions.

Is this the only kind of populism/communitarianism which Bryan's progressivism politics conserves the possibility of: a Potemkin community, living off gnostic aspirations, dependent upon elites who themselves want nothing to do with them? (Why am I thinking about Thomas Frank's description of Republican politicians and their evangelical supporters in the megachurches here?) Perhaps that is the case. But I'm not willing to say so. "Proceduralism" may be a dead-end liberal ideology, but not all liberal procedures partake of that ideology. Some are, I think, genuine attempts to address the passing/weakening of conservative verities in the liberal order. If every single liberal procedure always carries these elitist ideological assumptions along with it like a virus, then Wendell Berry is a sell-out for supporting the Burley Tobacco Program, or for praising the insight of that William Allen White, a turn-of-the-century Kansas progressive and "Middle American" Republican who came to support the New Deal, because, though he attacked the populist People's Party (an attack he later regretted) as well as William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s, he accepted throughout his career and tried to see implemented widely their original agrarian insight: that the wealth that really matters is one that can be generated and held by the productive arts of a community of working people.

Those communities are mostly gone now. If the ideals behind them are to be realized again, it certain won't be the government or a new progressive program which will recreate them--that will happen family by family, community by community, away from the rush to modern media and markets. But families and communities are no longer, if they ever were in our theoretically classless and mobile society, locked in one place, able to allow their dynamism who work them deeper into the land they occupy. To provide some security for those few who do try to lock themselves down for the sake of the future and more permanent things, some assistance will be needed. Bryan's kind of assistance--the moralistic, Jeffersonian, and even "conservative" or populist assistance which he weaved into the fabric of the contemporary liberal Democratic party--probably wasn't the best possible kind of assistance. But it was a noble effort, one that I, for one, would love to see the likes of again.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of William Jennings Bryan, his attempt at "fusionism" of the largely rural Populist movement with the Democrat Party of Southern Dixiecrats and Tammany Hall political patronage machines is about as downright silly when you come to think about it, as the current Republican strategy of trying to unite Wall Street economic interests with Main Street social values.

The difference was the cultural divide of the 60's, the "New" Left and the rise of Identity Politics. Republican victories are not victories for Republicans, but defeats for Democrats. That's a big difference, and a reason behind the shallow support of the Republican Party today.

The original populists were largely farmers trapped in the crop-lien system that emerged under the gold standard. Their movement was about protecting private property from predatory banking policies, and the lack of competitive markets in government sanctioned monopoly first and foremost, the railways. The basis of their program was not collectivization but "cooperation"...meaning the banding together in voluntary coperatives to negociate pricing of their commodity crops and favorable terms with the railroad monopolies.

The failure of the coooperative movement was the refusal of Wall Street to provide them with credit...according to Big Business Tycoons, any form of voluntary cooperation that threatened their monopoly was "socialism".

Most of the histories of the populist movement are told from this perspective from the point of view of the oligarchs. I'd discard ANYTHING on populism that comes from the so-called "Conservative" movement. On the other hand, most texts from a LEFTIST point of view are full of cultural bias toward the Populists, where were anti-communist and pro-private property (cooperation), and were Christian traditionalists. Most leftist historians are Jews, and Jews of course, have a historical antipathy toward the rural folk, who they associate with the pograms of Eastern Europe.

The best book on the populist movement is Goodwyn's book, the Populist Moment, the short version you can pick up on Amazon for a couple of bucks.

Another great book on the adoption of populist rhetoric by the Republican Party and the Conservative Right wing is The Populist Persuasion, by Michael Kazin.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Joe, I've responded to you over at The American Scene; look there.

Anonymous said...

There is much here to read, and I will be back to read more. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay.

Doug M. said...

"their original agrarian insight: that the wealth that really matters is one that can be generated and held by the productive arts of a community of working people."

Why is this a particularly /agrarian/ insight, though?

Even in 1896, more wealth was being produced in towns and cities than on farms.

Doug M.

Russell Arben Fox said...


"Why is this a particularly 'agrarian' insight, though?"

Well, one could make the arguments made by Jefferson or John Taylor or other early republican agrarians, and argue that what happens in the cities isn't real "production": only manufacturing that happens in rural environments where the producer is drawing immediately upon landed resources available to him counts, and anything else smacks of dependency. Bryan didn't affirm this, obviously, and to the extent the same general argument about keeping wealth near to where it is generated could be taken up by advocates of unions and workplace democracy, etc., then he would have agreed with it. But the original, Jeffersonian agrarian emphasis upon farming/landowning independence ran deep in his understanding, nonetheless.

"Even in 1896, more wealth was being produced in towns and cities than on farms."

In absolute terms, yes; the balance of economic productivity in the U.S. passed from rural environments to the city before even the Civil War. Still, it wasn't until 1920 or so that America was clearly a majority urban nation, and well into the twentieth-century, some of the wealthiest on average communities in America were rural ones, because of the value of the land which was still widely owned by farming families.